By Charles Umney, Associate Professor of Work & Employment Relations at the University of Leeds.
What is the role of class in British society and politics? One famous relic of noughties centrism, and a founding member of the trumpeted Independent Group, weighs in on the subject-
“We know that the left-right fulcrum around which our politics has revolved for the last few decades is nowhere near as important as it was. Your age, the demography, your background, your class, your geography- all of these things, these cultural issues, are playing much more in British politics”
The argument appears to be this: the left-right divide is out, “cultural issues” are in. Class, despite having previously been at the heart of left-right arguments, is now a cultural issue, in much the same way as “background”, “age”, “the demography”, or “your geography”.
This would be very strange to a time traveller from fifteen years ago. Until recently, class was dismissed as a dead issue, pursued only by absurd dinosaurs. Now, it appears, no politician can avoid paying lip service to it.
It is the fact that class has been reduced to the sad status of “cultural issue” that causes the problems here. In this guise, it has come to be used in ever more caricatural ways: you are in the elite if you like free movement and avocadoes, and in the authentic working class if you like the death penalty and Brexit. Such is the discourse in much of the news media.
In sociology, much energy has been devoted to elaborating new typologies for describing the British “class structure”, drawing on influential but diffuse concepts such as the “precariat” and the “elite”. Political scientists meanwhile obsess over “post-liberal” juxtapositions between educated cosmopolitan versus anti-liberal “left behind”. Both offer a basically static kind of analysis: class gaps tend to freeze in place, thus perpetuating social differences.
My objective, pursued in my recent book “Class Matters” and which I will discuss in the workshop “Class, Austerity and Precarity” , is to try and revitalise an alternative way of thinking about class. In Marxian theory, class is firstly a relationship, shaped by people’s positions within the economic structure of society. Some people own businesses and use this ownership to make a profit. Others depend on their ability to sell their time and skills in exchange for a wage. Some have managerial roles whereby they need to control and regulate the second group in the interests of the first. And so on. There are inevitable and fundamental conflicts between the people that fulfil these different kinds of functions, which can never really be fully smoothed over. We might create ways of doing so – a welfare state, collective bargaining, political parties purporting to represent workers – but in capitalist societies conflicts will always resurface in some (often unexpected) form. These conflicts are what drive society’s institutions to change and evolve.
On a human level, these different positions define the kinds of pressures and demands people face in their daily lives – most obviously at work, where even supposedly privileged groups of workers increasingly face insecure, unfulfilling or alienating work environments. But also in their wider political and social existence: class relationships create dysfunctions and demands which profoundly impact the way our economy develops and the way our government works. Why, for instance, have governments across Europe sought to dismantle welfare states and collective bargaining institutions, despite the evidence that these policies have harmed rather than benefitted their economies? To understand this, we have to think about class: not as a means of classifying different strata within societies, but as an ongoing conflict which is apt to destabilise, rather than shore up, apparently settled social systems.
The political ramifications of this way of looking at class are important. They tend towards a much-needed rejection of arguments based on vacuous pontificating about “cultural issues”. Instead, they suggest that the real divides that matter in our society lie elsewhere: they are not about our preferences and attitudes, but about ownership of our productive resources and control over how they are used.
Charles Umney will deliver a talk, discussing this issue in greater depth at the next SIPS Seminar event entitled “Class, Austerity & Precarity” on Wednesday 17th April in the Eric Mensforth Building, Room 3201, City Campus, Sheffield Hallam University between 4pm & 6pm. Tickets for the event are still available via the link in the blog post above.